The view from the veranda of this superbly restored 12th-Century villa in Tuscany is just like one of those lyrical Italian paintings prized by art galleries.
Fields form a checkerboard of olive groves, grapevines, fruit trees and wheat, laced with patches of vivid red poppies that seem to glow in the soft Tuscan light.
The candle-like shapes of the cypress trees, the visual signatures of this region, surround many of the ancient farmhouses in the distance. The structures look little changed since they were built in the Middle Ages.
I'm staying at Le Colombe, one of these country houses. Run by a charming couple, it is only 20 kilometers from Florence, and has been modernized to provide every comfort.
Every serious traveler has dreamed about leasing a villa in Tuscany, one of the loveliest areas of Europe. There are, however, three obstacles to stop you from fulfilling this fantasy.
Minimum rental is usually three to six months, far too long for most people. The cost is substantial, $300-$400 U.S. a day is not unusual for a better villa, and to that one must add the wages of at least one person for the day-to-day cooking, cleaning and maintenance tasks.
The third problem is language. Unless visitors have a reasonable knowledge of Italian, life in a villa can be isolated at best. There is no one to introduce you to locals, and shopping as well as sightseeing without any help or guidance is far from easy.
These problems have logically dampened most people's enthusiasm for staying in one of those lovely Tuscan villas. But for three lucky couples at a time, the problems won't be a deterrent. They will have their dream fulfilled and can enjoy a villa stay in Tuscany with an insider's view, thanks to their gracious hosts, Francesco Forlano and his lovely Mexican-born wife, Carmen.
I met Forlano last year when he was manager of the Villa San Michele, a luxury hotel par excellence at Fiesole on the hillside overlooking the famous Italian art center of Florence.
Before that he had worked at the Vier Jahreszeiten Hotel in Munich and managed the Hotel San Domenico in Taormina, Sicily. There he met and married Carmen.
When moving to the San Michele in Florence they fell in love with the incredible beauty of this area, deciding to begin a new chapter in their lives. Both would give up their careers to buy and restore a 12th-Century villa at Mercatale in the Val di Pesa. There they would grow fruit, olives, herbs and Chianti grapes.
But both are vivacious, multilingual people of the world who enjoy the mental stimulation that contact with international visitors provides.
So they set aside three double rooms with facilities of the highest standard, good enough to suit the fussiest of international guests. Then, in an aura of serenity, comfort and luxury that only the best of the Tuscan villas could provide, up to three couples could make their base here and see the area in what would be a house-guest atmosphere.
"I felt that this would be an exciting thing to do," said Carmen. "Here in one of the most beautiful parts of Europe, while we settle down to a country life, there will be enough time to show our house guests some of this enchanting area.
"Within a day's drive are some of Italy's greatest treasures. Florence is half an hour away, Siena an hour, and as soon as we found this old villa we knew it was just right for the idea."
Buying the villa, the Forlanos set about transforming the property into a haven of perfection. With exquisite taste and a knowledge of interior decorating and architecture, they set to work. Drawing on his hotel experience, Francesco knew exactly what his potential guests would appreciate.
During the renovations, workmen dug up a Roman stone panel with a carving of two doves, the inspiration for the villa's name, Le Colombe.
The house consists of two parts, the tower that dates to the 12th Century, and the annex, added in the 17th Century. Although both have been completely restored and modernized internally, the building blends into the timelessness of the area.
Windows look out over a panorama that will never be forgotten. Bedrooms, furnished in Tuscan style, have wonderfully comfortable beds and ceilings of the local bare-beam-and-tile construction that has been unchanged in this area for a thousand years. En-suite bathrooms feature large baths or big showers (a rarity in this part of Italy).
Breakfast, served by Carmen on the open terrace, is a feast for eye and palate, with bread, scones and sweet rolls freshly baked by her each morning.
But the real treat is the charm of the Forlanos, who made us feel that we were part of their family from the hour we arrived. A stay here opens the whole of Tuscany for their guests in a way that few tourists would otherwise find possible.
Nothing was too much trouble for our hosts. They took us shopping to little places and markets otherwise only known to locals. Our purchases cost less than half the price of similar goods in the tourist shops of nearby Florence.
How else could we have found ourselves dining (the only foreigners there) in a restaurant on the estate of the Machiavelli family? The owner-descendant of Niccolo Machiavelli showed us to the building next door and took us to the room where Machiavelli wrote "The Prince," the treatise on government that changed the concept of politics from that time onward, in 1513.
I asked the Forlanos how they would advise guests to spend a week based at their country house. The Forlanos' eyes lit up as they described the treasures that this area has to offer.
Romantic Part of Italy
"This is a very romantic part of Italy," Carmen said, "and there are some wonderful examples of Roman architecture in this area. There are also some marvelous fortified and walled villages and magical towns like Siena.
"Another visit should be to Impruneta, the 'town of terra cotta.' The famous tiles of Florence were made at these factories, which are only three kilometers from our property.
"We are also in the heart of the Chianti area and the Chianti Road leads from here through to Siena. In this picturesque area you will find some wonderful wineries producing Chianti Classico, and many of these properties welcome tourists who would like to visit and taste their wines."
She suggested spending one day in Siena with its narrow streets unchanged since the Middle Ages, where you will see Siena Cathedral. Then two days in Florence where the art museums and churches alone will take a full day, the balance of the time being spent window-shopping and exploring the lovely, interesting streets.
The Chianti region will take the third day. Radda, Gaiole and Castellina in Chianti are all of great interest. Visitors should also visit some of the wineries. The Forlanos will call them and make arrangements. Among the most famous are the Badia Coltibuono and Castello di Brolio; there are easily a hundred wineries within easy reach from here.
A famous castle is named Monteriggioni and an abbey called Badia a Bassignano is where the former Queen of Holland now lives. Another famous abbey is called Santa Stefano Acamboli.
San Gimignano is a small medieval town where, in the Middle Ages, important families displayed their wealth by building the tallest possible towers till the town's skyline looked like a 15th-Century version of New York. There is also Volterra where you will find the most important Etruscan museum in Italy.
Close to Pisa, Montecatini
Pisa is only an hour and a half from here and would be another alternative. For those who want to take the baths at an Italian health spa, Montecatini is one hour away.
"Where would you dine?" I asked the Forlanos.
"The Tuscan way of eating is very simple," Forlano said. "Simple dishes are prepared without any attempt to do something more complicated. A very good restaurant is Le Antica Posta at San Casciano where you eat very well.
"Then there is Piscondola near Mercatale and near Bansano the Trattoria de Montaliari in a vineyard. There are many others to which we guide our guests and with which they are generally quite satisfied."
"What about shopping," I asked.
Geared to Tourists
"Many of the shops in Florence or Siena are geared to tourists and therefore very expensive," said Carmen. "I like to shop at the villages on market day. Stall holders set up once a week, following a set market circuit. At these market days one can buy almost every kind of merchandise, from shoes to food. You can find everything you want and pay half the price you pay in a shop.
"For food I like to shop at Tavarnelle where they have the best flour for the bread that I bake. I go on Thursdays."
Also, many places in small villages produce handicrafts such as blouses, bags, shirts and similar items.
With their wealth of knowledge, Francesco's excellent English, German and French, and Carmen's English and Spanish, the Forlanos make a visit here memorable indeed and at a fraction of the cost charged by the top hotels in the area.
With only three guest rooms, booking ahead is essential. Once you visit, however, one thing is certain. You will be made to feel like a family guest, and will leave with regret, determined to return to that charming couple and your villa in Tuscany.
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To save money if you're driving a rental car, go to the Italian Government Tourist Office at the airport or at the border and ask for a list of places where you can buy tourist coupons enabling you to get a reduction of 200 lire a liter, as well as vouchers for autostrade tolls and free breakdown service. It is wise to prepay your car in the United States.
For bookings or inquiries, the Forlanos can be contacted at Le Colombe, Via Della Mandria 2, 50024 Mercatale Val di Pesa, Firenze, Italy. The cost for two including breakfast is from about $85 U.S. a night.